Last week, the Obama Administration approved a plan that will make way for utility-scale solar development on 285,000 acres of public land in the Western US. The plan encompasses areas of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah and will create 17 “Solar Energy Zones.” It provides strong economic incentives for development within these zones, with allowances for faster and easier permitting as well as improved mitigation strategies.
U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar released the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on Friday which details the 17 zones where solar developers will be encouraged to locate their projects, alongside an additional 19 million acres of variance zones where solar developers will be permitted to work but with fewer incentives and 79 million acres in exclusion zones where any energy development is off-limits. Out of the six states, California has twice the acreage of solar zones than any other state. The plan creates 750,000 acres in variance zones for the state, much of which is located in the Mojave Desert.
The plan, which includes feedback from interested stakeholders including conservationists, also lays out a framework for regional mitigation plans to protect key natural and cultural resources. It also identifies best practices for solar energy development to ensure the most environmentally responsible development and delivery.
But some conservation groups still oppose the plan with concerns that the desert, which is home to scores of endangered plants and animals, will not be capable of absorbing the planned industrial-scale projects. Janine Blaelock of the group Solar Done Right contends that, “We aren’t getting that public land back. once it’s industrialized, everything that lives there and everything we enjoy about it will be gone.”
This sweeping master plan for solar energy development is part of the Obama administration’s efforts to expand domestic energy production. Since 2009, the Department of Interior has authorized 33 renewable energy projects, including 18 utility-scale solar facilities, 7 wind farms and 8 geothermal plants with associated transmission corridors and infrastructure. When built, these projects are projected to provide enough electricity to power more than 3.5 million homes.